“F **k my legacy,” says Ricky Gervais in his latest stand-up special, Armageddon, on Netflix. The remark is too defensive to be credible. Instead, he seems to care about his legacy very deeply; anxious, perhaps, that his latest forays into shock-jock stand-up comedy have tarnished it forever. He needn’t worry. Gervais is lucky that his legacy will be a good one. But not for the reasons he suspects.
The Office (2001-03) – co-created with Stephen Merchant – revolutionised British TV. It was sensitive to the minutiae of office cubicles, sales calls, and the banal pathos of life in a radial town. Its star – the central engine of the comedy – was the anti-hero David Brent, played by Gervais. The boss at the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg paper merchants was vulgar, self-centred, and a bit mean spirited. He was out of touch, left behind, desperate to be a star but destined to be a travelling salesman. Brent was as finely drawn, and as funny, as Basil Fawlty. The character made Gervais as famous as John Cleese.
Somewhere in the past 20 years Gervais lost his way. Today he makes headlines with the so-called anti-woke comedy that has none of the soul or wit of The Office, nor any of the light touch and insight of Gervais’s other critically successful venture, Extras (2005-07). The celebrated chronicler of multi-lane roundabout Britain forgot how to make people laugh. And in this, there’s poetic justice: the mastermind behind David Brent was fated to become him.
In Armageddon, Gervais stands alone on an otherwise empty stage and jokes about dying teenagers, racist disabled people, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and performing sex acts on paedophiles. Mostly, he jokes about how everyone is just too damn sensitive these days! The critical response: the gags aren’t funny; the humour is crass and hollow; it’s all so passé.
It is too easy, however, to chalk this up as just another tale of a prodigious star being driven to distraction by the culture wars. Variety describes Armageddon as a “culture war snoozefest”. The Guardian laments his “battery of crude gags about immigrants”. Even in 2018 the New York Times was full of sanctimony over Gervais’s humour that is neither “edgy or cheeky” but “dangerous”. Gervais’s story is much sadder than that. It is about how even the talent of Britain’s once-greatest satirist is transient and fleeting; a reminder that the same Bob Dylan who wrote Blood on the Tracks is capable of the artistic incompetency of Down in the Groove. Gervais has simply aged out of brilliance. His case is a reminder that everyone does.
It is not difficult to understand why. The Office was made from forensic observations about ordinary life. Gervais saw a universe inside a workplace and reflected it back to us. Then his world changed: fame thrust him into an environment with famous actors, sets, money, egos bigger than his own. So he made Extras to satirise his own success. Throughout both he never lost his commitment to the faithful replication of real life.
In 2019 he wrote and starred in After Life: a show about journalism that no journalist would recognise; a show about a man dealing with the loss of his wife in a manner that no one who has lost a wife would recognise either. It was over. Gervais lost his curiosity, and put down the magnifying glass. Perhaps burdened by fame and wealth, there was nothing left for him to observe and perhaps no point trying. When was the last time he was in a fluorescently-lit office speaking to people from Slough?
Gervais believes he is a radical stand-up. But he is not an articulate critic of identity politics and he is locked in a permanent state of disbelief about why few find his new material funny. Gervais may think he is applying his feted realism to the real world instead of the fictional one. Instead, he is stuck in a loop of straw men and outdated references. David Brent was desperate for fame. Gervais is a cautionary tale of what might have happened had he ever achieved it.
There is tragic irony. “Words change and I don’t want to be left behind,” Gervais says, mocking the changeable linguistic rules of “wokeness”. (“Fascist”, he informs us, used to describe regimes that kill journalists. Now, it refers to someone who listens to Joe Rogan’s podcast.) This is supposed to be an acute, subversive observation of a new progressive authoritarianism.
Instead, it’s a line that may have cut through in 2014. Ditto, jokes about misgendering, about the sensitive and snivelling disposition of the 21st-century left. “Critical race theory, heard of that?” he sneers. Yes, actually! Most have. Armageddon reads like a Rod Liddle column from the mid-2010s, without being half as funny and nowhere near as insightful. Gervais jokes about being left behind by the culture. He doesn’t realise that he long has been. The artist has become his muse.
Gervais might say he is indifferent to popularity, happy to be disliked, but he is transparent. He wants to be loved, to be part of something, to be amusing. Like Brent, he can no longer work out how. In the final scene of The Office, Brent finally – after all this time – makes his co-workers laugh. It was all he ever wanted. In the latest stage of Gervais’s career, this is an act of charity he ought to afford himself.
In 2016 Gervais resurrected Brent as the central character on the film Life on the Road. It didn’t land. The character and the writer are now indistinguishable from each other, and finally the joke is on him. Twenty years on from the paper company that made his name, stands Gervais: alone on a stage, Brent-remastered, in the greatest performance of his career.
[See also: Why is “The Traitors” so addictive?]